Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Too British

Divided by a common language


It's not news that American English is different from British (my) English. The quotation above is attributed in different forms to three different (not American) sources, including George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, but the observation was definitely expressed at least a hundred years ago and has been repeated many times since. I used to have fun analysing the differences when I was a teacher. I still have fun with some of the misunderstandings. I do not have fun with the consequences for me as a writer.

So let's start with the fun. I mix online with international communities in three virtual worlds; writing, photography and dogs. I'm British and live in France so have made more than my share of mistakes in my second language. Bemused French friends have wondered whether I was really on heat in Vaison-la-Romaine, or why I groom my dogs with a nightie, as I have apparently told them. I love the way my Spanish photographer friends adjust the studio 'lightning' and it explains how they produce such dramatic images. But when it comes to misunderstandings you can't beat a conversation involving British and American English because each party knows he is right. Forgive me, Australians, South Africans, Irish and all the other speakers of an English which has evolved away from British English for not mentioning you too; I suspect you are still closer to this than to American but I stand to be corrected. After all, The OED refers to 'World English' as an alternative.

In the world of stock photography, there are strict guidelines about child photography and one of my friends was incensed about the rejection of an image for displaying a two year old child's 'nipples'. The toddler was running around a beach in a happy 'summer ambience' shot and the very idea of such a photo being seen as sexual offended most of us, from most cultures. I find the Europeans more relaxed generally about nudity than the Americans but all of us, from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds, found this photo an innocent image of childhood in summer. One American photographer suggested Photoshopping pasties over the offending nipples.

I didn't like to say but this struck me as a bizarre food fetish. I mean, why would anyone put Cornish meat pies over a child's chest? Or over an adult's nipples for that matter? Curiosity got the better of me and I delicately enquired about the ways in which pasties would enhance the image, along the lines of, 'Wouldn't meat pies look odd on a toddler's chest?' (My time in Yorkshire has given me the delicacy for which that area is famous).

Much laughter later, all the other speakers of proper English owned up that they'd thought the same as I did, all the second-language speakers kept very quiet, and all the American speakers explained that pasties (pronounced differently) are tassels worn by strippers. 'The comment was sarcastic, Jean.' Doh (a useful Americanism).

Not only can words be enemies. Standard American grammar uses 'gotten', which was sent to America on the Mayflower and not used in Britain after that. There is an idiosyncratic use of the conditional tense 'I would have' as past tense, which really grates on me - and these are standard 'correct' usage in American, not slang, so my 'correct' English must grate on Americans. Punctuation conventions also differ; one example is that single inverted commas are the modern norm for dialogue in British English whereas only double are correct in American. Spelling differences are the least of your publication wrongs if you publish the same book in .com and
the unemployed apostrophe

All of this I can accept. Languages evolve and adapt, are rich and changing.What I find irritating is the criticism 'too British' from a few American readers, in reviews of books set in Britain, by British authors (not of mine, so far, but I won't be surprised if it happens). Grammar, spelling and punctuation are slated when in fact they are correct for British English. I am so grateful for all the readers who are aware that these differences exist and to be expected when you live dangerously and read books in the original English. I have five times as many .com readers as so these barriers can be crossed!

Publishers have known all this for donkey's years and usually have re-writes to suit the market. I suspect that my translation 'Gentle Dog Training' loses American readers the moment they see the words 'lead' and 'lunge' rather than 'leash' and 'longline' but I am incapable of writing in American. If you self-publish you should be aware of the differences when choosing an Editor and when publishing. You can publish and be damned, taking whatever criticism comes, or you can 'translate' your work. Joanne Harris (or her publisher) dumbed down the title of her novel 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' for the American version, wrongly I think.

Checking the dictionary

Of course it would be just as irritating to find reviews on slating American authors for poor English, when they are using standard American, but you know what? I haven't found any yet. Perhaps we're not so insular after all, at least when it comes to forms of English. When it comes to foreign translations, however, there's a very different story to tell...


  1. As a reader I always check out the author bio before I begin a book. I feel responsible to take into account the author's use of language. It's not up to an author to change their language to suit whatever language is native to each reader.

    Your bio, for example, Jean, is careful to mention all the cultures that influence your word choice.

    I see what you mean about translations, good point. But again, it's up to me as a reader to read the author bio and then the translator bio.

    As for single versus double quotation marks around dialog, who cares. Some authors use none at all, some use italics. As long as I can tell when someone is speaking, what's the difference.

    Many readers are simply too fickle. The point is supposed to be, is there a good story or not? The web has made the world "smaller" but a good story remains the universal quest regardless of language.

    1. Thanks for sharing that. It's really interesting to find out the different ways people read. Since I joined in some group reads on I've become far more aware of how people read.

      Italics really irritates some readers so I guess you can't win them all! The dialogue punctuation is completely different again in French publications - chevrons are usually used.